The eleven reflections gathered here are in response to the attack in London, Ontario on Sunday June 6th that killed Madiha Salman, Salman Afzaal, Yumna Afzaal, and Talat Afzaal, and hospitalized 9-year old Fayez Afzaal. Recognized as a “mass murder” and a “terrorist act,” the attack brought to public attention the problem of Islamophobia in Canada. Our contributors’ reflections on this attack are minimally edited; what matters to us here is that we capture the varied emotions and perspectives on this event. Through such a capturing, we aspire to do three things. First, to elevate public discussion by allowing both faculty and grad students a platform to speak and apply their critical faculties to an event that touches them personally and professionally—personally, as scholars at a Canadian institution and sometimes as Muslims, professionally, as researchers of various dimensions of Muslim life. Second, to create a space to grieve where pain can transform into solidarity and sadness can be constructively channeled. Third, we wish to document and mark this event. Every tragedy has the potential of rupturing previous forms of thought, and though our reflections are short, they are nonetheless part of an important national conversation in this moment.
The reflections vary in both content and tone. Some are shorter; some are longer; some engage with academic theory; some analyze recent events; some are more personal; the opening piece is one of creative prose.
Despite their differences, five key themes emerge from the reflections. One, the inter-connection between settler colonial violence against Indigenous peoples and Islamophobia. Our contributors see violence against Indigenous peoples as both preceding and now overlapping with violence against Canadian Muslims today. Second, the impact of violence against Muslim bodies globally and in media representation. As Abdulla Majeed notes, it is important to think about the temporal and spatial dimension of violence against the Salman-Afzaal family. Third, the complicity of Canadian politicians in creating a climate of Islamophobia. Our contributors note how politicians have either shown indifference or stoked the flames of Islamophobia for political gain. Fourth, the insufficiency of recent political commitments in fighting Islamophobia. How, our contributors wonder, is the fight against Islamophobia to mean anything when the Canadian state has for decades sanctioned the surveillance of Muslim communities? And fifth, our contributors engage with what we might call the two faces of Canada: one where Muslims can have friendships and solidarity with their neighbours of differing backgrounds, but while living in a condition of structural violence through systemic racism.
We have decided to publish all the reflections at once. They are meant to be read as a conversation between us, and spur a larger conversation with our readers. In this regard, the individual ideas are meant to be heard together –- as a collectivity of voices.
Institute of Islamic Studies, UofT
Table of Contents
- ٹہلنا/Tehelna-Strolling, Sadaf Ahmed & Zaid Salman
- Violence Across Space and Time, Abdulla Majeed
- Reading Connections, Sumayya Kassamali
- Reframings, Sara Hamed
- The Complicity of our Leaders, Khalidah Ali
- This Too is Canada, Sarah Hillewaert
- The Gentle Provincial Government Squeeze Out of Anti-Islamophobia Work in Newfoundland and Labrador, Jennifer A. Selby & Sobia Shaheen Shaikh
- A Mass Grave, Mass Murders, and Colonial Erasure, Mohannad Abusarah
- The Power to Confer or Withhold Security, Youcef Soufi
- The Roads Paved by Our Indifference, Rand Saleh al-Jumaily
- A Turn to Systemic Islamophobia, Parnia Vafaeikia
- unspeakable, Allyssa Case
ہوا تھوڑی کھائیں؟
موسم پیارا ہے باہر نہ نکلیں؟
چائے پی لی؟ اچھا، شام کی واک کے لئے چلتے ہیں
چلو ذرا باہر چلتے ہیں
چل — ادھر تک چلیں؟
ارے بچوں سیر کے لیے جائیں؟
آرام سے مُنّا! دادا اتنا تیز نہیں چل سکتے
دل ہلکا کرنے کے لئے
گپ شپ کرنے کے لئے
ہنسی مذاق کرنے کے لئے
کھانا ہضم کرنے کے لئے
ناراضی کو دور کرنے کے لئے
خاموشی کے لئے
“Hawa thori kaein?”
“Mausam pyara hai, na? Bahir na niklein?”
“Chai peeli? Acha, shaam ki walk ke liye
“Chalo, zara bahir chalte hein.”
“Chall — udhar tak challein?”
“Arrey bachon, sair ke liye jaein?”
“Aaram se, munna! Dada itni tez nahin chal sakte.”
Dil halka karne ke liye
Gup shup karne ke liye
Hasee-mazak karne ke liye
Khana hazam karne ke liye
Naraazi ko dur karne ke liye
Khamoshi ke liye
“Shall we head out and enjoy the breeze?”
“The weather is lovely, eh? We should take it in.”
“Have you had your tea? All right, let’s head out for our
“Let’s go for a little stroll.”
“Come — we’ll walk to that [known] place.”
“Hey kids, shall we go out?”
“Slow down, little one! Grandfather moves more slowly.”
to talk through weighty matters, to ease one’s burden
to chit-chat, and relish in one another’s company
to laugh and kid around
to let the body digest a meal
to cast away anger
Sadaf Ahmed, Department for the Study of Religion, UofT
Zaid Salman, UBC Alumnus
In writing on the nature of violence, anthropologists Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe Bourgois describe its character as intertwined, intimate, mimetic, and reproductive, what they call a “continuum of violence.”[i] In this framing, the continuum extends on both spatial and temporal dimensions simultaneously. Spatially, violence builds a network, extending across multiple geographical and national-territorial boundaries. Temporally, not only does it attack the present of its victims, but also their pasts and futures, leaving traces in the here and the hereafter. Violence does not abide by national-territorial borders, for it learns from past violent acts committed elsewhen and works alongside violent acts perpetuated elsewhere. The terrorist attack on Al-Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019 comes to mind here as one such recent example of the imitative and transmutable character of violence, in which past Islamophobic terrorist attacks, such as the Quebec Mosque shooting, come to be cited as an inspiration and a model to be replicated.
The heinous murder of the Afzaal family by the 20-year-old Nathaniel Veltman is but one other event in that continuum of violence that should not be detached from the “foundational violence”[ii] of settler colonialism in Canada, as many have already poignantly noted. At the same time, it should not be detached from the machinery of imperial violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere that worked and continues to work on relegating certain Muslim bodies to the perishable under the guise of a global “war on terror.” Reading this attack through the appropriate terminology—an act of terrorism—is of great symbolic importance. However, it should not be celebrated as an achievement or a milestone. It should instead be coupled with a recognition and an acknowledgement of this event’s location within the wider legacies and presences of imperial violence that reproduce these Islamophobic sentiments and actions, and the multiple local and global events it cites and from which it borrows in sustaining that violence.
The murder of the Afzaals is not only an attack on the sovereignty of their bodies and being, but also an attack on their right to a future, and the possible futures of others who might look, speak, dress, and believe like them. While violence does work through erasure in the present and manipulation of the past, it is important to recognize how it also works by foreclosing futures; the future to exist, to believe, to work, to have a family, and so on. The attack on the Afzaals should be read as an attack on the mundane aspirations and desires that animate the everyday of Muslim lives. Muslims, on the many spectrums of belief and practice, may not lead or hope for a normal life, this event appears to tell us. We are told to transform the mundane and everyday into a permanent condition and site of emergency. Yet, we do not abide. It is the steadfastness of the Muslim community in London to lead a normal life, to walk in the street despite the moments of fluttering fear, that can sustain all of us against these forms of violence—especially when politicians fail.
[i] Scheper-Hughes, N., & Bourgois, P. (2004). Introduction: Making sense of violence. Violence in war and peace: An anthology, 4.
[ii] Praeg, L. (2008). The aporia of collective violence. Law and Critique, 19(2), 193-223.
Anthropology and The Centre for Diaspora & Transnational Studies, UofT
The fact that the targeted killing of four members of the Afzaal-Salman family in London, Ontario, came only days after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation found the remains of 215 children at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, BC, once again lay bare the continuity of racial violence that has created what we today call Canada. To say this is not even to make a radical claim, as Justin Trudeau himself drew connections between the two events in terms of racism, national tragedy, and collective mourning. But it remains incumbent upon those of us who are hailed by one event — by virtue of belonging to the Canadian Muslim community, or being marked as such — to insist on the connections with the other. A simple starting point: for those who have not already done so, we might spend some time reading the Executive Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. After all, this is a website titled “Reading Muslims”, and its audiences are certain to be skilled readers.
For those of us who work, teach, and live under the sign of Canada, it is essential that our pedagogical approaches to questions of Orientalism, religion, colonialism, immigration, or multiculturalism, be integrated with a thorough understanding of the project of settler colonialism and land theft in Canada; one that is grounded in facts, timelines, and geographies. Perhaps we might then work to overcome the heavily segregated worlds through which we arrive at these issues — those that wholly separate us from Indigenous lifeworlds, and are often organized around national diaspora, language, sect, profession, class, or orthodoxy, even as we meet on the same land. It is then, too, that we might rethink the exclusionary project of nationalism through the collective possibilities of our shared grief.
Department for the Study of Religion, UofT
London, Ontario was my first home in Canada. Then Niagara Falls, St. Catharines, Stoney Creek, Ancaster, Mississauga, Toronto. To me, London has always been a place of happy, carefree, childhood memories and intimate community –it’s where I made my forever friends.
My mind is fighting with me to reframe this beautiful Canadian childhood. To mark it up with the Islamophobia and racism that I know were there all along. The discrimination I knew my father faced at work, the slights my mother bore at parent-teacher meetings or at the grocery store. I am connecting the dots today, recognizing that none of these ugly incidents were isolated, that in their wake, they create the possibility of death and destruction.
The decades-long violence in Gaza. The unmarked graves of Indigenous children, marking cultural genocide. Sunday’s terrorist attack. I mourn the loss of the blissful oblivion I thought I enjoyed as a child, the impossible right of all children everywhere. I feel myself slipping into a dark place. I know this place; I have been here often this past year. It gets harder and harder to come out again. It’s not the fear, it’s the heartbreak.
I want to thank those who bore their grief through media interviews, press releases, official statements, walks with their families after Maghrib. Who said the things that had to be said and did the things that had to be done, responding to the public summons, so that the rest of us could pray and grieve behind closed doors.
I want to thank my Canadian Muslim community for holding my hand, for teaching me to feel pain with strength and courage, not alone, broken and in the dark.
I pray for those we lost in the battle against hate, and I pray for hope in a Canadian victory.
Department for the Study of Religion, UofT
For me the past few days have been filled with grief, anger, disgust, and also a sense of hopelessness. A deep skepticism has come over me in the possibilities of the Canadian government serving the Muslim community in the wake of the horrific attack by Nathaniel Veltman whose violent hatred claimed the lives of Madiha Salman, Salman Afzaal, Yumna Afzaal, and Talat Afzaal, leaving behind young Fayez Afzaal who is currently recovering from his injuries and facing the sudden loss of his family.
Following the attacks, the typical “thoughts and prayers” were offered by government officials who were given a platform to speak against hate and Islamophobia in Canada at the vigil held on June 8th for the Afzaal family in London, Ontario. But what did the presence of our nation’s leaders like Justin Trudeau and Erin O’Toole mean for Muslim Canadians? Many journalists and commentators have quickly pointed out that such words sound hallow when the very same leaders have not used their powers to combat Islamophobia in effective ways, including fighting against forms of legal discrimination against Muslims in Canada.
For example, the issue of Bill 21 has been raised numerous times since Sunday’s tragedy as a form of legislation that targets visible Muslims like members of the Afzaal family and fosters anti-Muslim hatred. Bill 21, Quebec’s secularism law, bans public sector workers from wearing religious symbols like hijabs, turbans, and kippahs while on the job, and to many of us it is a clear example of a law that unfairly targets visible religious minorities and, in fact, institutionalizes Islamophobia in Canada. While Trudeau tweeted on Monday June 7th “To the Muslim community in London and to Muslims across the country, know that we stand with you. Islamophobia has no place in any of our communities. This hate is insidious and despicable – and it must stop,” he was quick to respond with a confident “no” when later asked if he agreed with the view that Bill 21 fosters hatred and discrimination. Though he reiterated that he did not agree with Bill 21, the response was disheartening.
Erin O’Toole, leader of the Conservative Party, called Sunday’s incident an act of terrorism and verbally committed to help in ending the violence and hatred that caused the attack. But he too did not step up when called upon to defend Canada’s Muslims against Islamophobia in the past. In 2017 O’Toole along with Conservative and Bloc Québécois MPs voted against the Liberal motion M-103 to condemn Islamophobia, systemic racism, and religious discrimination. O’Toole claimed he opposed the wording of the motion, feeling it would hinder free speech and legitimate critique of religion. But what could be expected of a leader who promotes the idea that Canada’s residential schools were created to “try and provide education”? Not much.
I used to believe that recognizing “white terrorism” could be the solution to shifting conversations of terror through heinous acts of murder by white supremacists. Attendees of the London vigil urged Doug Ford to call Veltman’s crimes “terrorism” and when he finally uttered the word, the crowd cheered. He went on to say that “This type of racism and terrorism cannot and will not be tolerated. We must stand united against it. It must be condemned in the strongest terms. And those who commit this type of evil must and will be punished to the fullest extent of the law.” But what does the recognition of terrorism look like in law? Legal scholar Azeezah Kanji reminds us in a public statement on her Facebook page that terrorism charges against the London attacker could prove harmful to the Muslim community itself. She says,
Anti-terrorism law is certainly applied in grossly racially-disparate ways: Muslims have been responsible for less than 10% of deaths from public political violence in Canada since 9/11, yet are subject to 98% of terrorism prosecutions. However, charging the attacker with “terrorism” in this case – for an act of violence already committed – won’t fix the disparity. This is because Muslims are overwhelmingly targeted pre-emptively, not on the basis of violent actions but on the basis of risk: whether by no-fly lists, terrorism peace bonds, security certificates, counter-radicalization, mass surveillance, or criminal prosecutions…“Terrorism” charges for the London murders won’t fix any of this; it will only serve to put a racially-neutral façade on a deeply racialized and rights-abusive regime, one that we should be seeking to dismantle rather than entrench.
Previous interviews and articles by Kanji have changed my own views through the recognition that widening abusive laws only serves to put Black and brown bodies at greater risk.
I must admit, I still call such white supremacist criminals like Veltman “terrorists” as an act of subversion against a term that has connoted brown skin for so long. But I do not know if hope for a better future lies in government, led by those who fail to act, who institute laws that continue to discriminate against religious and racial minorities. On June 11th the government committed to a National Action Summit on Islamophobia to convene leaders from all levels of government to help end violence and discrimination against Muslims in Canada. Perhaps they will find ways of supporting the Muslim community and my hope is that the conversation will rest on dismantling white supremacy as the root of discrimination and hate-based violence.
A few weeks ago, on Eid, my husband and I went door to door on our street, handing out homemade sweets. Me, donning a new long dress and shiny hijab, my husband wearing a thawb and Swahili kofia. We recently moved into the area and wanted to share the joy of this holiday with the neighbourhood. When one of our new neighbours opened the door, her 4-year-old daughter ran up to her, stopped in her tracks when seeing us, and then pulled her mom aside: Come, mommy, come! She said urgently. The girl whispered something in her mom’s ear, and then quickly ran into the house. Her mother laughed somewhat uncomfortably, and reassured us that her daughter would be back. Since we are one of the very few Muslims in the area, I was certain we had scared the little girl, undoubtedly looking quite strange to her. And then, she reappeared, with the biggest, joyful smile on her face, carrying a bottle of cold water and a packet of potato chips. “Here you go!” She triumphantly said. “You can drink now!” She happily explained. We all burst out laughing and her mom apologetically clarified that the kids had learned about Ramadan in school. When her daughter saw my hijab, she had realized we were celebrating the end of the fast and was overjoyed to share in our celebration.
It was a moment I will not soon forget. My husband, who recently moved to Canada from Kenya, was amazed at this girl’s joy and at the fact that schools were teaching students about Ramadan and Eid. Myself, a convert from Belgium, thought how exceptional this kindness and generosity was. I smiled at my husband and said: This is Canada.
Last Monday, we watched the news to learn about the tragic murder of an entire family, killed solely because of their faith. One young boy, the sole survivor, facing a life without his parents, sibling, and grandma. And I cried. I cried because of this tremendous loss, I cried because of this senseless violence and hatred, I cried out of anger and sadness, and I cried because I knew: this too is Canada.
These last few days I thought a lot about the stories we like to tell, and those we prefer to avoid or ignore. We happily talk about encounters like the one with my young neighbour, to celebrate Canada’s diversity and supposed difference from places like the United States, or Belgium for that matter. Yet, we urgently need to address other encounters that are all too familiar to many of us. What happened in London is just as much part of life in Canada. It is not an isolated incident. It is not something to write off as the actions of a single individual. It is part of a reality we urgently need to address, as a community and as a country. I sincerely hope this becomes a moment of action, rather than an event that will merely be remembered. But I also pray that we find strength in this moment and that the positive connections we built help us work toward much-needed change.
When getting ready for my evening run the other day, I hesitated, just for a second, when I put on my headscarf. Is it safe? I asked myself. A few minutes later, I ran past a group of neighbours who joyfully cheered me on as I ran, the young girl clapping enthusiastically at my effort. And I smiled, grateful for signs of hope and kindness in this moment of incredible sadness and pain.
Jennifer A. Selby, Department of Religious Studies, MUNL
Sobia Shaheen Shaikh, School of Social Work, MUNL
On June 8, 2021, members of the House of Assembly in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador (NL) paused to acknowledge and condemn the horrific massacre of the Afzaal family in London, Ontario. Gerry Byrne, Minister of Immigration, Population Growth and Skills, solemnly condemned the hate motivated attack in the House as one “of cowardice and evil.”
As scholars and community organizers who, since 2017, have lobbied Mr. Byrne and two other ministers in his role to take anti-Muslim hatred, anti-Semitism, and all forms of racism (including anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, anti-Asian, and anti-immigrant racism) seriously in our province, we are heartened to have heard Byrne publicly denounce the attack and to say the word “Islamophobia.” But, echoing critiques of the shallow lip service of public condemnations of anti-Muslim hate by Canadian politicians in response to this unspeakable violence, and based on our work on addressing Islamophobia in NL over the past four years, we wonder now, in this moment of grief and mourning, whether and how to seize this moment.
We are hopeful that increased awareness and education about linked forms of racialized hate stemming from anti-Muslim, anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, anti-Asian, anti-immigrant and other forms of racism, could herald meaningful change. This hope is tempered with skepticism, however, given the provincial government’s consistent dismissal, inattention to, and inaction on racism and Islamophobia. Our analysis of the House of Assembly proceedings over 20 years – from January 2000 until March 2020 – shows that issues of Islamophobia, anti-Muslim racism, anti-Black racism, and anti-Indigenous racisms have been almost non-existent, other than mentions of international hate-based tragedies, or when Members of the HOA are called out for racism. [i] These mentions lack substantive response.
We began our Addressing Islamophobia in NL community project in February 2017 following the massacre of six men at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Québec City. We are both faculty members and received support from Memorial University to undertake this work. From August 2017 – December 2018, we employed students and consulted with local community organizations about their needs regarding anti-oppression work before conceptualizing and delivering a two-day conference on Addressing Islamophobia in September 2018. The National Council of Canadian Muslims provided significant support and leadership as we worked together to create local-facing programming. Over the course of the two years in which we undertook consultations, prepared for this conference, and worked to create three substantive provincial recommendations, we invited several provincial government offices to engage with us (our primary recommendations were to issue an anti-Islamophobia statement and to hire one staff person through the Human Rights Commission to undertake anti-racism work). The remainder of this response focuses on records from the House of Assembly from this period and the formal letters we received from three ministers from the same department. We do acknowledge one exception in the HOA, when Islamophobia was mentioned to note a local community member who organized a “human shield” around the St. John’s local mosque following the Québec City mosque attack.[ii]
First, records from the House of Assembly show that there was no meaningful engagement with anti-racism. Our own report and recommendations are mentioned once (on 13 November 2019) when the Liberal Party responded to allegations of racism, namely following MHA Perry Trimper’s racist statements about the Innu People of Labrador. The then-Minister Christopher Mitchelmore described our meeting in this way:
I had met with the professors involved in this report and listened to them. They had released a community report in September of 2019 and I certainly appreciated the opportunity to hear what they had to say and their contributions and the recommendations that are put forward.[iii]
Rather than engage with the contents or recommendations of the Report, the Minister mobilizes it as proof of his engagement on anti-racism work in response to allegations of racism of this fellow MHA. Beyond a fleeting acknowledgement of “listening to the professors” about the report on Islamophobia, there was no substantive engagement with the issue of Islamophobia, anti-Muslim racism, or, in fact, anti-Indigenous racism, which was the topic on the floor.
Second, in response to our formal requests from 2017-2019 for engagement on anti-racism and Islamophobia in NL, we received formal responses from three different Ministers of the Department of Advanced Education, Skills and Labour (the Office of Multiculturalism is housed in this department). In the first letter dated 15 May 2017, the Minister noted that his department promoted a provincial Multiculturalism week (MW) and a regional pilot project on “Welcoming Communities,” but that anti-racism work “does not fall within in the mandate of the Office.” Almost two years later, a 28 March 2019 letter acknowledged the 2017 mosque shootings in QC and outlined provincial response through ongoing support of MW and a 2018-2019 Diversity Calendar, that showcased “diversity” through annual celebrations and profiling twelve notable immigrants (none of whom were Black). A third letter (2 October 2019) in response to a meeting with us prior to the public release of our three recommendations commended us of our “efforts” to promote inclusion, and concluded: “I would encourage you to pursue engagement with private and community sectors, as well as labour unions and education groups, in order to address discrimination in all its forms.” A very tall order for an unfunded volunteer-based community advocacy group! Together, in the recorded minutes of the HOA and in our official engagement with the provincial government we heard four primary responses, which we call: (1) “Wait, what? Racism exists in NL?”; (2) the unique NL experience (no racism or Islamophobia here); (3) the multicultural economic-driven migration strategy; and (4) “welcoming,” “diversity and inclusion” talk.
The now-Minister’s strong statement against “Islamophobia” in the HOA this week in response to the murders in London, Ontario, therefore makes us pause and question whether this horrific moment could potentially signal an openness to taking our provincial white settler colonial past and present seriously. As Anver Emon notes, it is clear that governmental strategies that promote diversity and multiculturalism, like the Multiculturalism Weeks or Diversity Calendars in NL, do not engage settler colonialism and white supremacy, key features that, unsaid and unengaged, bolster ongoing anti-Muslim hate in Canada. At the same time, in the NL context, we must push against recent austerity rhetoric.
In conclusion, we remain skeptically hopeful that with the right leadership the government of Newfoundland and Labrador can meaningfully lead conversations and actions to address NL’s ongoing histories of colonialism, white supremacy, and racism. Despite our positions as critics and the very limited response to our community-based anti-Islamophobia provincial interventions (and our sadness that hatred becomes part of government conversations largely in the wake of horrific events), we remain hopeful that, together, we can work toward a NL where everyone feels safe to take a walk on a summer evening. There is too much at stake.
[i] See https://www.assembly.nl.ca/HouseBusiness/Hansard/ga49session1/19-11-13.htm and also https://www.assembly.nl.ca/HouseBusiness/Hansard/ga47session1/12-06-14.htm). We should note that there are several mentions of racism in relation to the UN Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, but again without meaningful engagement.
[ii] https://www.assembly.nl.ca/HouseBusiness/Hansard/ga48session1/17-02-27.htm. Another mention of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism followed a vigil organized by a Jewish student group in response to the shooting at the Pittsburgh Synagogue (see https://www.assembly.nl.ca/houseBusiness/Hansard/ga48session3/18-10-31.htm).
Department for the Study of Religion, UofT
It could be a mere coincidence that two remarkable events happened in less than two weeks apart, namely the discovery of a mass grave of Indigenous children in Kamloops and the hate-motivated attack against a Muslim family in London, Ontario. However, this coincidence nonetheless tells us about an ongoing history of colonialism that still exists today. The mass grave of 215 Indigenous children shows us a microcosm of a long colonial process of vanishing Indigenous history, the stealing of Indigenous lands, and the erasure of Indigenous identity. More than 150,000 Indigenous children were stolen from their families and homes to be put in Residential Schools where they were forced to change their languages, dress, and traditions. They were attacked on the basis of their difference. They had different tongues, rituals, and lifestyles. Indigenous peoples had two options to escape colonial attacks, either by assimilating to the colonizer’s identity or physically disappearing. Put differently, colonial forces demanded they hand over their identity or their lives.
The London attack against the Afzaal-Salman family constitutes a new episode of colonial history. A family of five was attacked because someone thought they were part of the “Other”—an Other not worthy of living as other. The four members of the Afzaal-Salman family were attacked on the basis of their difference. They came from a geographical area that is different from their murderer’s, had a different religious tradition, and subscribed to a different heritage. These facts seemed enough justification to take their lives, according to the perpetrator. The erasure of the Afzaal-Salman family intended to reach the same colonial goal: hand over your identity or your lives.
Away from the spotlight cast on the Kamloops mass grave and the London mass murders lies less conspicuous events of erasure. The colonial mind has not changed. The only thing that has changed is its targets and its techniques. Residential schools, concentration camps, expelling people from their historical lands, aerial bombardment of civilians, stigmatizing religions, and police brutality are all part a long history of colonial erasure. This erasure is fostered in political discourses, official laws, media coverage, and foreign policies. And until there is real change, the immediate attacker is not alone responsible.
Institute of Islamic Studies, UofT
This Wednesday, June 9th, I was supposed to take care of my two kids as my partner conducted an ethnographic interview for her research on parenting practices in Canadian Muslim communities. But the interview was cancelled. Her interviewee, a Muslim mother from Mississauga, needed to spend the day in a London, Ontario, hospital with a friend. Her friend’s nephew is Fayez Afzaal—the nine year old boy whose family was murdered on Sunday in an attack that police say was motivated by Islamophobia.
The interviewee’s friendship with the Afzaal-Salman family got me thinking about the intimate ties that exist among Muslim communities across Canada. These ties are forged in different ways, sometimes through diasporic networks rooted in a common homeland, sometimes through participation in mosques or other Muslim organizations—we know for instance that the Afzaal-Salman family were active at their London mosque and that Yumna Afzaal had attended a local Islamic school. The result is that when tragedy hits a Muslim family, there is often communal support for those grieving.
If the driver that killed Madiha Salman, Salman Afzaal, Yumna Afzaal and Talat Afzaal had done so accidentally, my partner’s interviewee would have still been there in London supporting her friend. Likewise, the London Muslim community would have still prayed over the bodies of the deceased; and community friends would have visited their surviving family members and mourned with them.
But it wasn’t an accident. And this fact changed how and why a community grieved. On top of grieving the loss of life, there is now also a lost sense of safety and security. The deaths of the Afzaal-Salman family have become embedded into a wider experience of marginalization and anti-Muslim racism. “The family looks like mine,” I’ve heard, alongside “I worry for my friends who wear hijab.”
The extreme violence enacted against the Afzaal-Salman family has come to symbolize years of overlooked violence against Muslim communities, ranging from verbal attacks to the vandalization of mosques and physical assaults. This experience of violence came out quite clearly in Muslim interviews of the last week. Nadia Hasan of the National Council of Canadian Muslims pointed out that the attack occasioned “shock” but little “surprise”.
For Canadian Muslim communities, there is now a validation of their longstanding claims that anti-Muslim racism is not innocuous. It hurts, maims, kills. Anti-Muslim racism has been ever-present, long before 9/11, but certainly it has intensified since then. It is telling that Ginella Massa, whose visibly Muslim presence on the CBC inverted traditional power relations between the media and its Muslim interviewees, expressed feeling moved when she heard the Muslim call to prayer on television divorced from an association with terrorism. Massa’s comment highlights how the vilification of Muslims can only be deemed subtle because it is normalized. And these years of low-level violence has led us here to the present moment when Muslims are burying a family and caring for its orphaned child.
For a wider Canadian community, this has become an opportunity to rethink what ties us together. The attack on Muslims is not divorceable from other forms of reckoning, made most pronounced by the recent uncovering of a mass grave of Indigenous children at a Kamloops Residential school.
So far, politicians have tended to fall back on an illusion of a multicultural and tolerant Canada that must do more to stamp out hate. They do so by assuring Muslim communities that they will tackle Islamophobia. London mayor, Ed Holder, insisted that “an attack against Muslims” is an attack “against Londoners,” adding that “it’s up to us—all of us” to answer “who we are as a city” with actions and not only words. Imam Munir ElKassam of the Islamic Centre of Southwest Ontario expressed his appreciation for Horton’s words of support, noting the mayor’s longstanding relationship with his Muslim community.
But though politicians might speak of “us—all of us”, it’s hard to miss the power relations at play in their statements. The nature of being a racialized minority is that the state can confer or withhold security from you. This ability to grant or withhold security does not apply to a White majority. Nor does this majority need to worry that they will be surveilled, policed at borders, or shipped half-way across the world to be tortured because maybe, just maybe, they have white supremacist ideas hiding beneath the surface.
It’s also hard not to see the state’s posture of multicultural solidarity as one among many episodes that have instrumentalized Muslims so that “Canada” can define its self-image. When the Harper government suggested a “barbaric cultural practices hotline” in 2015, Muslims were used to shore up an image of “civilized” Canada. When the same government banned the niqab at citizenship ceremonies, Muslims were used to define Canada as a “gender-equal” society. When the Liberal McGuinty government of Ontario amended the Arbitration Act in 2005 and when the Legault government of Quebec banned religious symbols for public servants in 2019, Muslims were used to define a “secular” Canada. And now, after these episodes have helped fuel anti-Muslim racism, Muslim death and grief is used to define a “tolerant” Canada. “This is not who we are, I know that to be true,” Horton affirmed.
Perhaps this instrumentalization of their dead is why the Muslims I have spoken to seem exhausted this week. When one’s grief is markedly politicized, what possibilities remain to reflect on and engage with God, life, death, love, and pain? How can Muslims turn toward one another without keeping their ear out for a continuous call that interpellates them to respond? How can they grieve when they are too preoccupied with the recognition of their humanity? From both the state and from a White majority?
So while we can hope that calls towards fighting anti-Muslim racism will materialize, we have to wonder if perhaps the real problem is the inability to acknowledge that how our country defines itself, although always changing and adapting to new circumstances, has sanctioned forms of violence against different communities throughout its history. Perhaps once this is acknowledged, we can move towards a different understanding of “us—all of us” so that next time Muslims grieve, such reassurances of belonging are considered unnecessary, redundant, and even puzzling.
Rand Saleh al-Jumaily
Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, UofT
Ian Kershaw famously wrote that “the road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference.” As active persecution against the Jews rose in Russia and Poland well before the First World War, many either stood by and watched, or became collaborators who were sucked into the anti-Semitic rhetoric. Politicians did not condemn acts of anti-Jewish harassment. Other authorities, such as the army and the police, often aided this behaviour. Petty crimes like looting or damaging property and discriminatory bullying through vandalism soon escalated to not-so-isolated acts of violence such as murder. A series of pogroms in the early 1880s were launched, tacitly encouraged by the Russian government, targeting East European Jews.
The lack of condemnation and the indifference of the general public was instrumental in the spread of anti-Jewish rhetoric to the rest of Europe, which eventually culminated in the atrocity that was the Holocaust.
Such patterns of vilification leading to death are not a thing of the past, unfortunately. On June 6, 2021, a Muslim family in London, Ontario was murdered in a hate-motivated attack by a 20-year-old white man. According to police, the attack was premeditated and driven by Islamophobia.
However, if we have learned anything from history, it is that the perpetrator cannot be held solely responsible for this blatant act of terrorism. Rather, it falls back on all of us who have made it possible for him to commit his act of aggression, as we stood by and watched in silence while anti-Muslim expression became a global issue.
For the past forty plus years, the Muslim character on TV has been portrayed as nothing short of barbaric and extremist. Actor Riz Ahmed has spoken out about this issue, and more recently, has backed a study that finds Muslims underrepresented in popular film. The report, conducted by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, found that popular movies have reinforced dangerous stereotypes of Muslims and rarely depict them in positive portrayals, let alone their racial and ethnic diversity. Negative depictions have effectively contributed to the dehumanizing of the Muslim community, and the absence of representation has contributed to the erasure of Muslim experiences– but we still endorse the movies and tune in to the TV shows.
Beyond the biases within media, there is systemic discrimination in Canada, coupled with blatant denial in the form of “this doesn’t happen in Canada…”
And yet despite this denial, the perpetrator of the Quebec City Mosque mass shooting in 2017 was not labeled a “terrorist,” because he was not sentenced under the terrorism provision of the Criminal Code. The stabbing of a Toronto Mosque caretaker in 2020 left authorities feeling “deeply saddened” and “shocked” and probably other generic terms expressing regret – but no action was taken to combat Islamophobia. Instead, Muslims continue to be portrayed as the terrorists and the radicals in federal policy, as a recent report points out. Blatant disregard for the topic of Islamophobia in public policy, for example, was evident when the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (which operates at an arm’s length of the federal government), suspended Canada Christian College’s president Charles McVety’s show, ‘Word TV.’ McVety espoused hateful rhetoric in his broadcast towards Muslims and Islam, but his show only got suspended after “statements he had made about homosexuals violated its broadcasting codes.”
As the Canadian government’s emergency summit on Islamophobia draws near, I ask myself whether the government will tackle the issue of broadcasting codes that apparently treats bigotry against Muslims on an unequal footing with other forms of hate. Will Islamophobia finally be seen as grave of a concern as other forms of prejudice and discrimination broadcast on public airways?
We are idle bystanders before the policies of governments all over the world (including our own Quebec government), that have chosen to strip away the freedom of religious expression, stigmatizing the hijab and passing bills that implement Islamophobic strategies.[i]
More gravely, concentration camps for Uighur Muslims are operating in China, and the Rohingya Muslim genocide perpetrated by the Myanmar military is ongoing right before our very eyes. Right-wing Zionists are marching in Jerusalem where Islamophobic slurs are heard, including insults of the Prophet Muhammed, in effect lending the issue an anti-Muslim tone.
So, it begs the questions: are these global anti-Muslim occurrences isolated, or should we draw parallels and prepare ourselves for a culminating episode? A few years ago, this might have seemed like a farfetched idea, but can we be so sure after we have seen the powerful combination of Islamophobia and populism in Trump’s 2016 Presidential campaign?
And moreover, are we participating in these atrocities? Have we become silent collaborators to anti-Muslim sentiment all over the world?
I am confronted every day with ignorant statements that enable hate, such as “This does not affect me personally,” regarding incidents such as the recent uncovering of a mass grave of Indigenous children in British Columbia, or “What was Macron supposed to do?” regarding the Islamophobic bill that was recently passed in France, and “I must remain neutral for the sake of my business” on the Israeli government attacks on Palestinians– but as the saying goes, the hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in the face of a moral crisis. The more we stay silent on such issues, the more complicit we are in these acts of aggression.
Reflecting back on Ian Kershaw’s words, I ask myself, what roads are paved by our indifference to Islamophobia?
[i] See, for example, France’s new law entitled “Reinforcing Republican Principles”, or the general ban on Hijabs and Islamic full-face veils in Europe: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/world-news/european-bans-on-islamic-full-face-veils/articleshow/81393603.cms?from=mdr
Department for the Study of Religion, UofT
In the Fall and Winter of 2020-2021, I was part of an organizing committee that held a series of townhall meetings with the UofT Multifaith Centre on the topic of Islamophobia. Most organizers and attendees were Muslim. During these meetings, we invited several prominent speakers from various backgrounds to discuss what Islamophobia is, what it looks like, and how to combat it. For the first townhall, I suggested inviting an academic scholar rather than a community leader. The first speaker, Nazia Kazi, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Stockton University, explained the difference between “systemic” and “attitudinal” Islamophobia. She rejected the latterand argued instead that we deal with a systemic Islamophobia in the West. She defined attitudinal Islamophobia as “the types of anti-Muslim sentiment that rest in people’s assumptions about Islam and Muslims, anti-Muslim tropes in media, and suspicion about a Muslim infiltration of Western culture” (2019:143). In contrast, she defined ‘systemic’ Islamophobia as the product of “geopolitical practices of violence and dispossession of Muslims via processes of military intervention, deprivation of legal rights, and systematic impoverishment” (2019:143). She emphasized that Islamophobia is built into our institutions and that inter-cultural dialogue and the celebratory cultivation of relationships between Muslims and the Canadian state cannot change this reality. In this regard, she noted instances of performative gestures such as Justin Trudeau attending Ramadan events or sending Eid messages as empty gestures–the state’s multicultural “show off” attitude. This example puzzled the audience because it complicated the stereotypical binary between the racist and violent US with systemic Islamophobia and the peaceful, polite, and progressive Canada with only soft and attitudinal Islamophobia.
After the event, I was stunned by the feedback and responses I received from the audience as well as other Muslim organizers who worked with me to hold this event. The majority believed that tackling Islamophobia as a systemic problem was counterproductive for the Muslim community. They believed that it victimizes Muslims and downgrades their agency to bring about change. Even at the time, I could see why such conversations about systemic Islamophobia caused anxiety for the Muslim community. While I was doing fieldwork among Shi’i Canadians, I had heard from my interlocutors the view of Canadian exceptionalism, the belief that Canada is a safe haven of sorts, a place unlike colonial Europe and the racist US. The Mullana of a Shi’i Mosque told me that they had seen an allyship between the Liberal Party of Canada and the Muslim community; they had even encouraged the community to vote for the Liberal Party. Claims about systemic Islamophobia destabilized this view of Canada and suggested that Muslims efforts to cultivate relationships with the government might not bear fruit.
For the next townhall meeting, I did not suggest a speaker. Instead, I waited enthusiastically to see who would be selected. My enthusiasm was quickly tempered. The rest of the events centered mostly around the discourse of personal success: How can we be successful in the workplace despite our hijab? How do we get an interview despite our non-white names? How do we take an Islamophobia case up to the court? In this manner, the community seemed to be willing to discuss Islamophobia at the personal level to learn how to overcome it in their personal and professional pursuits.
I cannot help but ponder why we see this reaction from seemingly many within the Muslim community. Considering the ineffectiveness of the discourses of Muslim upward mobility and Muslim assimilation in the Canadian public, what is so frightening about accepting Islamophobia as a system of domination in relation to colonialism and imperialism? I also wonder if this reluctance to speak about colonialism and imperialism represents repressed Freudian moments. Those moments, according to Freud, are preserved in the unconscious because the conscious cannot tolerate the pain they cause. Repression as a defence mechanism “ensures that what is unacceptable to the conscious mind, and would if recalled arouse anxiety, is prevented from entering into it” (Russel 2004:803). Are the occasions to speak about systemic Islamophobia the suppressed moments haunting, even terrifying, the Muslim community because there is?
The London attack took place in Canada on June 6, 2021, and took the lives of four members of a Muslim family. The police said the victims were singled out because of their religion. To me, the attack was a sign, or what Avery Gordon calls “a ghost”, i.e., the empirical indication that shows when a haunting happens. The ghost can be a dead or missing person, but most importantly for our purposes, the ghost can be a social phenomenon, like systemic Islamophobia. As Gordon explains, “the ghost… is one form by which something lost, or barely visible, or seemingly not there to our supposedly well-trained eyes, makes itself known or apparent to us, in its own way” (Gordon 2008:8).
I believe that many Muslims have avoided talk of systemic Islamophobia because the Canadian grammar of belonging is at stake. Some Muslims are afraid to engage with the ghost of systemic Islamophobia, with the return of the repressed – the elephant in the room – because they would be coming face-to-face with the haunting reality of being stuck socially and politically. That is why they reduce their analysis of Islamophobia to a personal level, or they experience constant anxiety about their belonging to and inclusion in the Canadian public. But perhaps the haunting effect of the London attack, the way the ghost appeared this time, may change Muslims way of knowing and comprehending the very definition of Islamophobia. This time, they may not be occupied with how to manage Islamophobia on the road to personal success or inclusion. As a result of this haunting, Muslims may be able to wrestle with Islamophobia in a deeper systemic level to dismantle the very grammar of it as opposed to seeking recognition and legitimacy.
Kazi, Nazia. “Voting to Belong: The inevitability of systemic Islamophobia.” Identities 26, no. 2 (2019): 127-145.
Davis, Derek Russell. Gregory, Richard L. (ed.). The Oxford Companion to the Mind, Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Gordon, Avery F. Ghostly matters: Haunting and the sociological imagination. U of Minnesota Press, 2008.
They keep calling it
it is not – nor
so many parents speak to their children of this over and over
the cells of their skin
the threads of their loved clothes –
it’s a bright truth that none but their closest know
the careful map to just how much this terror hurts
but that’s not
if you are sure it is unspeakable you are not trying hard enough
to string the words, the mercies, the screamed prayers
speakable sounds like: can’t be
can’t force a closer draw of our young towards us
with a more confused call to God or plea for any soft, strong string to
bind our selves together while the whole earth just keeps spinning
to speak it, you may need to sit down carefully on the floor with the terror
and shake with it
with the terrorized and the terrorizing until it isn’t abstract anymore
until you can see it beside you, quiet and real
until you’ve counted all the changing moons of grief and self-silenced prayers
counted all the words in all the languages for this
because the hate is speaking just fine – brash and bloody and sweeping knells
so are all the bearing shoulders and cradling arms at the mosque
all the outrage and the loud desire to be safe that must be fulfilled
all the love for a child we’re using to talk about our pain (it’s still love)
there is nothing unspeakable about this.
*Update (July 14, 2021): We’re pleased to share with you a published version of the reflections above.